Thursday, 12 November 2015

Peter Frankopan's 'The Silk Roads' - a talk at Blackwell's

       Yesterday afternoon I went to Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford to see the Byzantinist Peter Frankopan talk about his new book, The Silk Roads, which seems to be a really excellent piece of work. The gist of the talk - I can't comment directly on the book, as I haven't read it - was that:
  1. History as taught in British schools has tended to focus on events in Britain which, on a global scale, meant very little
  2. The real heart of civilization and of great events is much further to the east, closer to the eastern Mediterranean, Iran, Central Asia, and northwestern India than to Britain and western Europe
  3. That's because our languages (Indo-European, Semitic (Afroasiatic?), even Sino-Tibetan) all come from or meet there, our religions come from there, food products and domesticates, and so on
  4. Control of this 'heart' has been a determining factor in the foreign policy of both ancient and modern states and empires, including imperial Britain, Russia, the United States, and China
      #1 seems pretty uncontroversial, so I'm not going to tackle that. Public ignorance of the ancient and medieval world outside Britain is obvious and directly results from a still-xenophobic conception of history (although I have to say that in the terrible all-boys state comprehensive school I attended we studied the crusades from the perspective of both Arabs and Europeans, and there was a whole term and project spent on native American societies, so it's perhaps not as bad as it was for Frankopan's generation).

       I can't really argue with #4, either - controlling Central Asia and the Middle East seems to have been a (bizarre, pathological) dominating preoccupation for so many empires for so long that it's hard not to agree with this.

        But #2 and #3 seem lacking to me. I can't agree that the 'heart' of civilisation - Frankopan also called it the 'central nervous system' of our world - is to be found somewhere in the middle of the Eurasian continent, primarily because even in ancient times so many products came from further south and east than most people are aware. Of course, I'm biased in favour of promoting Indonesia's role in ancient history, but that's largely because I really think it was important. I don't believe in a core-periphery view of world history, so it's not that I'd put the 'real' centre further south and east than Frankopan, but I think mentioning the role of Southeast Asians (considered broadly) is important as a corrective to this kind of narrative.

         Charles Higham, who has written extensively on Southeast Asia as an archaeologist with decades of experience at a variety of fieldsites, considers Southeast Asia to include not only the familiar peninsula jutting out south of China and not only the islands of Indo-Malaysia and the Philippines, but also parts of eastern India and southern China up to the Changjiang (Yangtze). Thought of in that way, Southeast Asia is one of the most important parts of the world in terms of its historical impact on everyone, and it's quite far outside Frankopan's 'heart'.
File:Southeast Asia (orthographic projection).svg
A traditional view of Southeast Asia. Now imagine the boundaries extending much further north and west and you'll get some idea of the cultural Southeast Asia Charles Higham is talking about. h/t Keepscase.
      Rice, sugarcane, bananas, taro, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, cubeb, breadfruit, tropical almond, sago, durian, water buffalo, certain domesticated pigs - they all come from this part of the world, many of them from eastern Indonesia and New Guinea, way in the supposed periphery. Chickens have disputed origins, but generally they - the world's most-eaten animal - are thought to have come from India or Southeast Asia (possibly from the Indus valley and the Harappan civilization, and therefore within the 'heart'). Rice feeds more people than any other grain, far more than wheat, and bananas/plantains are a staple food in large parts of Africa. Cloves and nutmeg were once powerful influences through their high prices: remember that Columbus sailed in search of an easy way to get at them, almost inadvertantly encountering a pair of new continents and changing the entire course of human history in the process.
The cubeb (Piper cubeba), native to Java and Sumatra (as far as I know).
        Several language families came about and mingled in this area too, including Austronesian, Austroasiatic, Kra-Dai/Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien, and several isolates. Sino-Tibetan is (of course) present in Burma, eastern India, Bhutan, and southern China. Indo-European is found in Bengal and Assam, but its influence was much greater than that, as Pali and Sanskrit exerted enormous influence on the vocabularies and formal structures of major languages like Malay (c. 250,000,000 speakers), Javanese (c.75,000,000 speakers), and Thai (c.40,000,000 speakers). Highland Southeast Asia is one of the most linguistically-diverse areas in the world; New Guinea, which has had a surprisingly profound impact on all of our lives, is the most linguistically-diverse large place in the world (Vanuatu probably has more languages to speakers than any other place, but it's made up of lots of islands).

        And when you consider Southeast Asia broadly, at least one major world religion, Buddhism, was established there (at the very least, Buddhism is from outside the 'heart'). Hinduism, an incredibly diverse and not-at-all-unified religious tradition, seems to have drawn on beliefs from Austroasiatic speakers in eastern India whose languages and ways of life germinated in southern China and Southeast Asia (nagas, lion-men, and other Hindu motifs are thought to have come from Mundas or people ancestral to them, at least according to T. Richard Blurton).

      Southeast Asia considered traditionally has over 600,000,000 inhabitants - more than Europe (c.500,000,000 in the EU) and many, many more than the combined population of the Middle East and Central Asia. About 70 million people live in Central Asia, and about 200 million live in the Middle East, according to traditional definitions (whether that matches Frankopan's definition, I'm not sure). Far more people live in Indonesia alone than the entire Middle East; more people live in Thailand and Laos than the whole of Central Asia. If you include Afghanistan in Central Asia, and I think you should, then Central Asia's population rises to about 100 million - roughly the population of the Philippines.

      This is not a peripheral area of the world by any stretch of the imagination even under the traditional definition, and when you start to include the areas Higham and James Scott would - southern China, eastern India, parts of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau - you're looking at easily a billion people living there, producing lovely literature and art (especially textiles), growing ginger and spices and rice, feeding many more people around the world - and this all far to the east of the proposed heart of civilization.

      I thought it was significant as well that Frankopan talked about al-Mas'udi, an Arab geographer whose work I wanted to look at later on on this blog. Mas'udi wrote about the entire world that was known to him, and that included parts of Southeast Asia. Frankopan noted in his talk that Europe was considered a backwater with little of interest to an urbane Arab writing in the tenth century (although Mas'udi does go into some detail about the fighting prowess of Franks and Galicians). But look at what he says about the Maharaja of Srivijaya, the Sumatra-based thalassocracy:
Even in the fastest boat, no one could sail all around the islands that he rules in less than two years. This kingdom produces every sort of spice and aromatic, and no king in the world obtains so much wealth from his country. Exported from his country are aloe-wood, cloves, sandalwood, nutmeg, mace, cardamoms and cubebs as well as other products that we shall not mention. (p.94-95 in the Penguin Great Journeys edition)
      The 'other products' - mentioned elsewhere in Mas'udi's book - include camphor, ambergris (the best in the world, he says), and gold. Mas'udi doesn't give us the impression that this heathen king ruled over a sordid backwater or somewhere peripheral to true civilization. (Regular readers might note the similarity of Mas'udi's list of spices to those of Polo and Odoric.)

       Frankopan's comments about our narrow-minded approach to history are absolutely on point and pretty well indisputable. Most people want to read charming myths about 'their' history - and we should challenge that in some way, draw attention to interesting things elsewhere, show people that what they consider important might in fact not be, at least in the grand scheme of things. But from my Malayocentric perspective, the Middle East and Central Asia are already overplayed. There are literally thousands of books published every year about those places - policy, military history, cultural history, you name it. They're certainly interesting places, but the constant discussion and dissection of that part of the world grates after a while if you fancy talking about something else.

        Frankopan asked the audience to consider that despite having a general understanding that China and Iran are interesting places full of people, few of us would be able to name our favourite Chinese popstars or Iranian thinkers. That's certainly a good point, but we can all at least name some Chinese and Iranian people, even if they're only Xi Jinping, Zhang Yimou, and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. So, try this: name a single living Indonesian person. No googling.


         So where does all that leave us? I think it means we have to abandon the idea that there's a single heart of civilization, one place in which all the interactions of serious consequence took place, and I think we have to leave aside the kind of history that focuses primarily on grand events and 'what really matters'.
      Ultimately I think the best way to teach history for future humans who have transcended national boundaries and want to see the big picture is to dispense with core-periphery ideas and look at the diverse origins of all of our stuff (and by 'our' I mean all of us - all humans). A lot of people eat chopped banana on their porridge for breakfast, so let's start there: where do bananas, oats, and milk come from? Where did lactose-tolerance arise and in which populations? Where does the word 'oat' come from? How are these things processed so we can eat them?

       We don't need to look very hard to see that all of the things we enjoy and appreciate came from all over the world, from nearly every continent, involving transactions and interactions that we would never have anticipated and wouldn't ever have associated with our lives. That's a big picture story that doesn't involve relegating some people to the periphery, and I think it a) makes life more interesting ('bananas are from New Guinea? What, the place with all the penis gourds and tribal warfare?') and b) relates ordinary life and direct experience to human beings everywhere, which seems like a valuable, humanising point.

      In any case, it was an excellent talk and I look forward to reading Peter Frankopan's book. And not only so I can criticise it further. It's apparently a real tour-de-force. Disagreeing with the premise of a book - and I'm really not sure that I do, as I can't assess to what extent the talk I witnessed and the book he wrote overlap - doesn't mean that it's not interesting, and in fact it sounds fascinating. I learned some truly interesting things from the talk, including the fact that the word 'ciao' comes from the Venetian dialect word for 'slave', and I'm not opposed to reading about the Middle East and Central Asia. So The Silk Roads has made it onto my reading list, and - I don't want to ruin the surprise for anyone - I'll be giving a couple of copies away as presents at Christmas.

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